Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi: “I have decided to take another step along the path of national responsibility.” © Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has abandoned his long-shot bid to become Italy’s next president, just as the country is poised to choose a head of state of its notoriously fractious political system for the next seven years.

In a widely anticipated withdrawal statement, Berlusconi, 85, insisted he had enough support to win the election to Italy’s highest office.

But the four-time former prime minister, who was convicted of tax fraud in October 2012, said he had decided to pull his name from consideration so lawmakers from across the political spectrum can choose a less divisive candidate.

Berlusconi’s tenure in office was tarnished by sex scandals and alleged corruption, undermining his quixotic quest to promote himself as a unifying national father figure.

“I have decided to take another step along the path of national responsibility,” Berlusconi wrote on Facebook.

Though rightwing parties had pledged to support Berlusconi’s candidacy, left leaning parties called his potential ascent to the presidency unacceptable, warning it could trigger the collapse of Italy’s fragile national unity government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Berlusconi “was a hard sell and he has obviously come to the conclusion that it cannot be done,” said Daniele Albertazzi, an expert in Italian politics and rightwing populism at the University of Surrey.

It was later reported that Berlusconi, who had suffered Covid in 2020, had been admitted to hospital in Milan for routine medical tests.

Former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, president of the populist 5 Star Movement, tweeted that Berlusconi’s withdrawal will allow serious cross party talks on a potential consensus candidate for the presidency.

“We had made it clear: Silvio Berlusconi’s candidacy was unacceptable,” Conte tweeted. “With his retirement, we take a step forward and commence serious discussion between political forces to offer the country a high profile, authoritative consensus candidate.”

Draghi, a former European Central Bank president, has been tipped as a potential presidential contender in a selection process that will formally begin on Monday, as more than 1,000 electors cast secret ballots for their preferred candidate.

Many in Italy’s business community are eager to see Draghi elected president — which would give him powers to supervise Italy’s politicians and push for the continuation of a €200bn EU-funded economic and social reform program.

But many politicians appear wary of elevating Draghi to the presidency.

Some would prefer a less formidable individual. Others fret that Draghi’s ascent could trigger the collapse of the current fragile national unity government, as the diverse coalition probably could not agree on a successor prime minister.

“He wouldn’t be there just to unveil monuments and make speeches — he would exert real influence,” Albertazzi said. “Many individuals in parliament worry that picking Draghi means having fresh elections in the spring and they absolutely want to avoid that.”

Berlusconi said it was important that Draghi’s government remain in place to carry on with investments and economic reforms.

Italy’s presidential elections are notoriously unpredictable, as more than 1,000 lawmakers and regional representatives try to converge on a single candidate. A candidate must secure the support of two-thirds of electors in the first three rounds of secret ballots, but the bar is subsequently lowered to a simple majority of 50 per cent, plus one.

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